Academia and Industry Meet to Reimagine the AI Graduate

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While artificial intelligence (AI), has in the last 50 years experienced waves of hype, it is now at an inflection point and becoming essential across the entire value chain. AI is playing a more immediate role at all levels of operations and the AI talent pool isn’t growing fast enough.  Gartner Talent Neuron data points to a tripling of demand for AI talent for IT departments between 2015 and 2019.

A 2020 survey by Deloitte that looked at the state of AI in enterprise, saw that all companies they surveyed reported an AI talent gap. The type of talent most in demand was AI developers, engineers, researchers, and data scientists. Lower on the list was business leaders, domain experts, and project managers.

Evolving Curricula for the Evolving AI Talent Pool

Fortunately, schools around the world are reacting to these demands. Schools in China teach courses tailored to future technology needs and the cross-disciplinary skill-sets needed in AI. In the US, schools are integrating practical exercises and technology skills into their lessons. This year, Finland introduced project-based learning to replace mathematics and history classes so that students can work collaboratively and expand their problem-solving skills.

Higher institutions, too, are building out their course rosters as the AI talent gap spans new markets. In this area, Ireland has an innovative approach that has yielded a ready supply of AI talent in recent years.  The government partners business and university-level academia to future-proof AI skills with industry-focused curricula that prepares AI engineers and data scientists for jobs in data analytics, computer science, software engineering, design and AI research.

Top U.S. tech firms — like Accenture, Analog, Citibank, GM, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Movidius, Genesys, Stripe, Mastercard and others— located in Ireland helped lay the groundwork for an ecosystem that is producing top AI talent. And it’s paying off. According to a 2019 study from LinkedIn, Ireland has the highest ratio of artificial intelligence talent in the European Union.

Ireland launched its first Master’s in AI at the University of Limerick in January 2018, a collaboration with the university, private companies and the Irish Center for High-End Computing.  Working with Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet, the drive is to prepare graduates for the AI skills needed in industry.

Medb Corcoran, managing director for Accenture Labs in Dublin, was among several representatives from private industry, including Citibank, Dell, Bell Labs and SoapBox Labs, to help develop the Master’s degree. Corcoran also was part of the Industry group that worked from a ‘blank sheet’ with academics in Dublin City University to define Ireland’s first-ever Bachelor of Science in Data Science. Launched in 2016, the degree trains for careers in big data, data analytics and related data science roles.

Corcoran runs Accenture Labs in Dublin, based at Accenture’s flagship global innovation center, The Dock. The Dublin Labs are part of a network of facilities around the world in locations including California, Washington, France, China and India.   “The Dublin Lab specialize in artificial intelligence, and our goal is to rapidly prototype new concepts for clients, with my team focusing on co-operative intelligence – namely explainable AI, computational creativity and knowledge discovery,” Corcoran explains.

Ireland’s Diverse Ecosystem of AI Talent

Corcoran tells me that access to the right talent has been key to Accenture’s growth in Ireland. “That’s a big differentiator here for us,” Corcoran says. “Irish universities have a history of tailoring their technology degrees to industry demands, so the talent coming out of the universities from a number of the degrees are ready to hit the ground running in AI roles.”

There is a substantial amount of exciting AI work going on in Ireland and a depth of highly skilled AI talent working in organizations across the country, who are applying these technologies to real world problems. Ireland is a base for a significant group of companies that are leaders in the commercial application and development of AI applications. As a result, there is an increasingly vibrant Irish SME and start-up space centered on AI application. This availability of industry-ready AI talent contrasts with the US West Coast, where the level of demand from large players and even smaller startups, means an extremely competitive job market. 

Yet another of Ireland’s premier resources, Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software at the University of Limerick, has been working closely with industry for all of its 15 years in operation. More than 250 researchers and 100 PhD students from nine universities across Ireland work in concert with 50 private companies to power breakthroughs in AI, data analytics and machine learning.

Although the majority of AI, analytics and machine learning has traditionally related to financial services, Edward McDonnell director of CeADAR, Ireland’s national center for Applied Data Analytics & AI, is seeing new waves of industry verticals.

Today, AI is used for everything from satellite monitoring of agricultural crops to assessing the value of insurance claims. One company is working with CeADAR to protect employees’ safety with a robot that climbs vertically to inspect 200-foot-tall agricultural storage towers for interior and exterior flaws – a dangerous job currently performed by humans.

The most recent AI wave is legal tech. “The whole legal community has now awakened to the opportunity that automatic document processing and natural language processing offers,” McDonnell says.

Ireland is an important resource for educating, graduating and providing top-level AI talent to the more than 700 US companies with Irish operations. And despite the unprecedented events of 2020, many US companies continue to tap into Ireland’s AI talent pool as they expand their international operations in Ireland.

About the Author:

Alan Mc Glinchey is a VP of Emerging Growth Companies at IDA Ireland, based in IDA’s Silicon Valley office where he assists West Coast companies establish a presence in Ireland, to grow their European market base and support their international customers

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